Gruen’s Big Ten Glance: Mike Riley, Nebraska Making Big Strides

By Seth Gruen–

(CBS) For the better part of last season, Nebraska coach Mike Riley served as my personal punching bag in this space. It often seemed convenient when I was in a cynical mood.

But this season, with the Huskers playing more of the kind of football we’re used to seeing in Lincoln, I’m at a loss as to what to do. Compliment him, maybe?

Nebraska fired Bo Pelini after the 2014 season despite his having averaged 9.6 wins per year over nine seasons at the school and hired Riley, who had a failed three-year stint as coach of the San Diego Chargers and an inconsistent run over two stints at Oregon State. In 14 seasons with the Beavers, Riley had fewer nine-win seasons than Pelini did at Nebraska alone.

The Huskers hired Riley for one reason: his personality.

Riley is the type of guy you would want as a father-in-law and fits in well with the sensible Midwestern personality of the school and its fan base. Those who check media members into Memorial Stadium in Lincoln offer to tether my credential to a lanyard, then cut off any excess string. It’s an easy enough task for me to do on my own, but it’s an offer extended to perpetuate the “nice guy” mentality at the school. On one occasion, I was accidentally omitted from the media parking list and staffers apologized so profusely you would have thought they totaled my rental car.

Riley is bereft of arrogance and answers every reporter’s questions with thoughtfulness — a perfect marriage with a Huskers fan base that doesn’t boo and holds a home stadium sellout streak that dates back to the John F. Kennedy era.

Pelini, a curmudgeon, was a stark contrast to Riley.

A 6-7 season in 2015 that included a Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA proved that character has nothing to do with scheming against the option or Cover-2 defense.

This season, though, Riley is showing it doesn’t mean you can’t coach football, either.

Riley’s Nebraska team is currently ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press Poll, courtesy of a 3-0 record and wins over Fresno State, Wyoming and Oregon.

In beating the Cowboys, Riley was able to best their coach, Craig Bohl, who spent eight years as a Nebraska assistant and a candidate many felt should have gotten the job over Riley. The win over Oregon marked Riley’s first over the Ducks since the 2007 season.

Heading into the game, Riley had a 4-10 record against Oregon. While at Oregon State he faced the program every year in the annual “Civil War Game” but failed to win it in his final seven seasons with the Beavers.

And heading into this week’s conference opener, Nebraska has emerged as the top threat to No. 11 Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. The Huskers will have a chance to climb even higher in the rankings with games at Northwestern, against Illinois, at Indiana and against Purdue before facing the Badgers in Madison on Oct. 29.

In each of its next four games, Nebraska should be a substantial favorite.

Whether Riley is the long-term answer at Nebraska is unclear. He’ll have to win more games. Nebraska would have to play in this season’s Big Ten championship game, where the program expects to be every year.

But if it gets there then it would be hard to deny that Riley, truly, would be the program’s perfect fit.

Power Rankings

1. Ohio State (3-0) — If you didn’t see Noah Brown’s catch against Oklahoma, please Google it.

2. Michigan State (2-0) — Mark Dantonio with another notch on his belt — a huge win at Notre Dame.

3. Michigan (3-0) — More style than substance? The Wolverines allowed 21 first-quarter points to Colorado at home.

4. Wisconsin (3-0) — The Badgers are carrying the Big Ten West banner at Michigan State.

5. Nebraska (3-0) — The Huskers should remain undefeated through the majority of October.

6. Minnesota (2-0) — Nebraska and Wisconsin are the only ranked teams on the Gophers’ schedule.

7. Maryland (3-0) — Wins over Howard and a pair of directional schools make its record less impressive.

8. Indiana (2-1) — There’s one non-conference game left.

9. Iowa (2-1) — The Hawkeyes are licking their wounds.

10. Penn State (2-1) — The Nittany Lions are heavy underdogs at Michigan.

11. Rutgers (2-1) — Host Iowa.

12. Northwestern (1-2) — It was a season-saving win against Duke.

13. Illinois (1-2) — You can’t really hold this against Lovie Smith with the lack of talent there.

14. Purdue (1-1) — How is Darrell Hazell still there?

Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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